I just read/skimmed a post and comments wherein a Baptist preacher was being royally torched for, among other things, having taught that Catholics aren't Christians, and characterizing Catholics as "cult members."
It kind of interested me that no one really contested the torching, and it was a Baptist blog. Time was that most Baptists would tell you that Catholics weren't Christians, but things have changed. I have had Sunday School class members tell me, just directly out and out tell me in class, that Catholics were Christians.
That's quite a change. You have to wonder what happened. Let me see if I can suggest a possibility or two.
One thing is that I am certain, dead certain, that hardly any Baptists, and precious few Catholics, actually know what official Roman Catholic doctrine is. That may sound like an absurd thing to say, especially about the Catholics, but I am totally convinced it is true. Over the years, I have repeatedly had the experience of asking people--sometimes whole classrooms of people--to tell me exactly what the differences between Baptists and Methodists are, or between Baptists and Catholics. Only once or twice has someone even come close on either count. I long ago grew convinced that your average modern Southern Baptist knows virtually nothing of doctrine other than "Jesus saves" and that it is "by grace through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God," and "faith without works is dead." Not that they haven't heard more doctrine than that, but there is a heap of difference between having heard something, even repeatedly, and knowing it.
Now, you might think that that is just those dumb ol' Southern Baptists and that the Catholics are more knowledgeable, but I wouldn't bet on it, not if I were you. I have had the experience of talking to a lady--a lady who attended, I think, Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church--whilst her car was being washed during one of our outreach events. My job was to talk to people who stopped by to get their cars washed, and as I talked to this lady, I kept saying things that I knew from my reading went directly counter to official Roman doctrine. To my complete and utter shock, she agreed with every single thing I said! "That's what we believe, too," she kept saying.
To appreciate how significant that was to me, you have to understand that it's not like I haven't read anything about the Reformation! I've read Luther's The Bondage of the Will and part of his Commentary on Galatians, both of which spoke directly against Catholic doctrine. I've read some of Calvin. I've read a pretty fair amount of what James White has to say about Catholicism. I've read books by other authors on the subject, the names of which I cannot recall right now. I've read--or at least I am pretty sure I recall reading--The Council of Trent, wherein the Roman Church specifically anathematized a number of protestant doctrines. I know that Trent has never been recanted. I know the Roman Catholic doctrine on Scripture and Tradition, on the veneration of Saints, on justification, on the interpretive authority of the Magisterium, on the Mass, on the Eucharist, and so forth. I know, and I'm telling you, that the Reformation was not over simple miscommunication!
The heart of the gospel itself was at stake--but the lady I was talking to sure as thunder didn't know it. I had to conclude that either she was lying to me, or she--and maybe the bulk of the people in her church, too--simply didn't know what the official doctrine of their denomination was.
What on earth could have caused that?
A few years later, I found out about something--something in addition to the general doctrinal ignorance prevailing in these times--that might be part of the explanation. It seems that quite a number of years ago the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (the BGEAs) started working with Catholic churches in their crusades. This move got the BGEAs royally torched by more Baptists than you might think; it was seen as serious doctrinal compromise. But this is the thing: in order for a Catholic church to participate in a BGEAs crusade, it had to agree to use BGEAs material, which is pretty standard Southern Baptist stuff, and which takes a good month or more to get through. So there were lots of people going to these crusades, and yes, some of them went to Catholic churches afterward, but they were getting, for several weeks, Protestant doctrine.
(At this point, somebody who believes in the "trail of blood" stuff will up and say, "But MOTW, Baptists aren't protestants!" Look, save it for now, ok? I'll get to the Trail of Blood another day.)
At any rate, to my mind, when you've had Catholic churches all across the country teaching Southern Baptist doctrine as part of the crusade "deal" for decades, you shouldn't be shocked that a lot of American Catholics no longer know what official Catholic doctrine is.
I've often pointed out to people that Martin Luther did not leave the Roman Catholic church. They kicked him out. Was he a non-Christian right up 'til the time he got kicked out, and then a Christian thereafter? It seems absurd, but that is kind of where you have to go if you automatically assume that Catholics aren't Christians.
The upshot is this: if you compare official Roman Catholic doctrine with the text of the Bible, it is clear, very clear, that Roman doctrine conflicts with what the Bible says at a number of key points, including the gospel itself. I do not believe that the official doctrine of Rome is the saving doctrine of the Bible--BUT I am quite convinced that despite attendance at Mass, despite liturgy, and so forth, rather a lot of American Catholics simply do not know what their church's doctrine actually is. Shoot, their local priest may not believe Rome's official doctrine!
You just have to talk to people on a case-by-case basis. Some have their faith in Christ and Christ alone, and some have their faith in the Catholic church and a mixture of faith and their own works. You don't know 'til you talk to 'em.